"The exploration programmes, not only in the Voisey's Bay area, but throughout much of the Innu lands, have proceeded without the consent of the Innu people...and the rapid pace has given rise to concerns, fears, and deep resentment among the Innu." - Chief Katie Rich, Utshimassit Band Council [Spring, 1995]
The Innu "look forward to the day when their history in, and rights to, the territory are properly recognized, and when they will be equal partners in all decisions that affect their land and wildlife."
Nitassinan (eastern Quebec and Labrador) is home to approximately 16,000 Innu. The Innu Nation is a regional political organization that represents the 1,500 Labrador Innu living in the communities of Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit (Davis Inlet). According to archaeological evidence, they have been residents of the region for at least 6,000 years. The Innu had been nomadic caribou hunters with strong traditional and spiritual ties to the land.
Extensive trading networks existed when the Europeans first arrived in the region, which served to provide an infrastructure for the fur trade and what would eventually lead (for the Innu) to a dependence on the Hudson's Bay Company. As happened elsewhere, missionaries came to the region seeking souls and preaching to modify Innu belief systems. Into this century the Innu continued to live in mitshaupa (teepees). Though hunting (of caribou and other animals) and fishing have remained vital culturally and historically, during this century hunting has been restricted by the provincial government in favor of what was hoped would become a stable fishing industry.
By the middle of the twentieth century the fur trade was replaced by industry which came to be the economic foundation of the province. The establishment of industrial and military bases in Labrador began with the taking of land from the Innu though they have never ceded these lands to the governments of Canada. Nor have treaties been signed establishing (or denying) the governments rights to the land. This period of land appropriation led to the eventual settlement of the Innu, in 1967, from their traditional mainland Labrador home to their current location on an island in Davis Inlet. This relocation was encouraged in an effort to generate an Innu centered industry based on fishing. Alienated from the land upon which Innu culture was so strongly tied, a host of social ills befell the Innu which are directly related to their colonization. Alcohol abuse, violence, high rate of suicide and other social and cultural tensions were incurred. The reality of the social problems with which the Innu have struggled was brought to public attention several years ago. In January of 1993, a group of six 12- to 14-year-old Innu children at Davis Inlet attempted suicide by inhaling gasoline fumes from plastic bags. Immediately placing the community in the international media spotlight, this tragedy came to represent the conditions of native communities throughout Canada and elsewhere. Though the children recovered, the event has prompted Innu leaders to more strongly emphasize the necessity that the Innu relocate to their traditional hunting grounds at Sango Bay, where they felt they would be closer to their cultural and spiritual roots.
In recent decades the Innu have worked to overcome these problems and to reclaim losses due to government incursion and policy making and industrial degradation. Central to this process is the reclamation of land appropriated from them in the past, an assertion of rights to resources in the area (hunting grounds and development potential), and recognition of them as a voice in the process (planning and methods) of economic revitalization. Severe underemployment in the province makes this final point of prime concern to the provincial government. Rich in resources, the region has seen thousands of mineral claims which offer a primary route to revitalization for the provincial government.
The Innu Nation first filed their land claims with the Canadian Government in November of 1977. Not until further research into historical and land use documentation was the Innu Statement of Claim accepted by both provincial and national governments in 1990 (the Labrador Inuit Association Statement of Claim was accepted in 1980). The long process of negotiations began in July of 1991 with Agreement-In-Principle (AIP) negotiations commencing in mid-1995 (A Framework Agreement was officially signed by all three governments on March 19, 1996). The current workplan between the Canadian, Newfoundland and Innu Nation governments has been established which anticipates an AIP in the fall of 1999. However, the Innu Nation now are now at a critical juncture in the negotiation process. First, the discovery at Emish (Voisey's Bay) in 1993 of one of the richest nickel ore deposits in the world has brought into the claim process a major corporate interest with the force of a potential multi-billion dollar mine development behind it. Second, the development of these and other mineral resources represent what could be an economic boom for the province of Newfoundland, which has been experiencing difficult times economically. Third, and most recently, land claim's agreements made with the federal and provincial governments by the Labrador Inuit Association has led to new pressures on the Innu Nation to come to an agreement quickly. This presents several problems in that an alliance of the two groups was proving to be successful in stalling development in the region. The Innu Nation, who have remained stern in their negotiations, needed the alliance to guarantee better agreements. This now appears to be left in the hands of the smaller Innu Nation.
The prospect of a major mining development at Emish has led to a sense of urgency for the Innu to focus on achieving an Agreement-in-Principle and a further settlement of Innu land claims. This discovery as well as thousands (over 250,000) of smaller mineral claims has increased pressure on the provincial government to develop the region and thus circumvent the negotiation process. The Voisey's Bay Mining Company (a subsidiary of Inco, Ltd. which acquired Diamond Fields, Inc.) has expanded their exploration in the region in what promises to be a profitable -- for them -- mine venture. For the Innu, indigenous consent must be included in the process of negotiation with Inco, Ltd.
"The exploration programmes, not only in the Voisey's Bay area, but throughout much of the Innu lands, have proceeded without the consent of the Innu people ...and the rapid pace has given rise to concerns, fears, and deep resentment among the Innu." - Chief Katie Rich, Utshimassit Band Council [Spring, 1995]
This sentiment was echoed by Daniel Ashini, an Innu leader, at an international consultation on mining and indigenous people, held in London, UK in May, 1996:
When the Innu realized that the activities at the site were intensifying in February of 1995, the Innu Nation and the Mushuau Innu First Nation Council issued an eviction order to Diamond Fields Resources. We demanded that they stop drilling until they had prepared an environmental and cultural protection plan. We went on to the land to protest for 12 days. It was a peaceful protest. The threat to economic development was, however, too much of a concern for the Newfoundland government. The Premier of Newfoundland sent in 56 officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. An attempt by the Labrador Inuit Association, which also has rights in the Emish area, and the Innu Nation to reach a negotiated agreement with the company ended abruptly when they made it clear that it would not recognize Aboriginal rights and resumed exploration activity.
Aboriginal rights do not represent a primary concern for Inco, Ltd. other then their ability via protest and legal action to slow progress in exploiting the resources resident at Emish. These concerns are also felt by the Labrador Inuit Association. Together, an alliance had been established to protest developments at Emish which were moving rapidly despite the lack of any land claims settlements, or progress toward these settlements with either group. The Voisey's Bay Nickel Company (VBNC) moved forward with plans to build an airstrip and road at Emish despite apparent government support forbidding such practice. These moves toward development were blatant efforts by the Voisey's Bay Nickel Company (subsidiary of Inco, Ltd.) to undermine the environmental assessment process. This despite the fact that the Innu Nation and LIA had succesfully negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Canada and Newfoundland. The MOU was intended to guarantee a single and comprehensive review of the Voisey's Bay project. This memorandum actually called for a more rigorous examination of the issues associated with this development than an environmental assessment (EA) provided for. Due to the lack of a land claim settlement, and the overlapping claims to the land at Emish, the MOU also provided for the participation in this process by the Innu and Inuit. Prior to the actions of VBNC, this examination would research the impact of development on the environment as well as its cultural and social ramifications. Similar nickel mining projects elsewhere have witnessed negative environmental and social side effects. A thorough examination of this project could have led to the implementation of a development plan that might limit the social disjunction and environmental damage that are associated with mining projects of this nature. After a series of court decisions - first supporting VBNC and finally supporting the Innu/Inuit coalition - the construction was apparently halted.
Duplicity on the part of VBNC seems to proceed with a purpose. It is a piecemeal approach that sidesteps the very process that is intended to review the project in its entirety. Extracting components of the development process from both the EA and MOU provides the corporation the opportunity to continue the development of the necessary infrastructure assuming they will gain access to all development opportunities sooner rather than later. Despite Mike Sopko's (CEO of Inco, Ltd.) protestations that delays are hindering his corporations ability (profitability) to exploit the nickel treasure, it is clear VBNC is and has been moving the project along in spite of legal agreements restricting such work.
Contiguous with the Innu Nation land claims negotiations are ongoing negotiations with VBNC. Both groups (Innu Nation and Labrador Inuit Association) must negotiate separate impact benefits agreements with VBNC to set guidelines as to employment and revenue sharing in the Voisey's Bay project. The strong demands of the Innu as well as their desire to guarantee their rights in the region do not correlate with the desires of the corporation. VBNC states that the Innu Nation are way out of line in their demands for a financial compensation package. The company states that "further discussions on an impact benefits agreement can't be held until the Innu Nation's expectations are more in line with the Projects Financial Realities" CBC Regional News - Wednesday, September 17, 1997 PM NEWS). Though the highly politicized Innu are posturing to negotiate a favorable agreement in line with their rights in the region, dramatic changes were forthcoming on other fronts.
We're gonna move heaven and earth to get this project off the ground. Rest assured. - Mike Sopko, CEO, Inco Ltd.
According to Mike Sopko, what Voisey's Bay represents is the future: "Acquiring Voisey's Bay is the best thing that could have happened for Inco, for the people working at Inco and for the residents of the places where we operate. At least now, we're masters of our own destiny." The high profitability of this mine and it's articulation with corporate interests does not bode well for the Innu given the apparent appeasement of a primary alliance. What the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) apparently sudden agreements to land claims represents is an end to a potential year long delay due to individual and cooperative protests by the Innu Nation and the LIA. Statements in the press have made it clear that the LIA land claims negotiation was considered the "biggest obstacle" to development at Emish. "We believe that there's a darn good chance that this thing is going to fly and that we're gonna then work very hard to put the impact benefits agreement in place" (Mike Sopko). The provincial government's interest in moving this project along is quite strong as well. Concerning the recent progress in Inuit land claims, Premier Tobin says it's time to get on with the Voisey's Bay development:
"There is no reason anymore, with respect to this project, not to move forward. Take a green light on land claims and translate the statement of principles that have been negotiated and signed off by negotiators, into an agreement in principle. That should happen." CBC Radio Regional News, 11/4/1997 (PM news)
Premier Tobin expresses a view that is inattentive to the Innu Nation land claims still pending. This statement does send a powerful message to the Innu Nation leadership. What the provincial government wants is to move the talk onto a "fast-track." According to Innu Nation president Katie Rich (CBC Radio Regional News on November 6, 1997 AM news) the Innu Nation are receptive to fast-tracking land claims negotiations with the federal and provincial governments. Both governments would like to move these negotiations to this level and to move the Innu Nation to the process of negotiating an impact benefits agreement with Inco, Ltd. If the fast-track and "Inuit model" negotiations do not prove fruitful, Premier Tobin has stated he will move the land claims to the courts to force a settlement. While fast-tracking the land claims agreements might be desirable, the fact remains that the LIA agreement has forced the Innu Nation hand. The developing alliance between them and the LIA has been broken. An alliance the governments of Canada viewed as a problem. The Innu, who have always been seen as more radical and politicized than the Inuit, have lost some of their bargaining power. Chief land claim negotiator for the Innu, Daniel Ishini, interpreted the Inuit agreement as a lever against the Innu. While their negotiations might be fast-tracked, the limits to the agreements have been set. Both governments have stated that whoever came to an agreement first would establish the basis for further negotiations. Thus the need for a strong alliance was critical. Ishini, however, remains stern, insisting the Innu Nation will negotiate their own agreement which might not look anything like the Inuit agreement.
The Innu and Inuit have never ceded territory to the Government of Canada or Newfoundland. The recent agreements of the larger Labrador Inuit Association has brought an increased sense of urgency to the Innu Nation. What is affected may simply be the commonality of their grievances (in degree) or much more. There still remains common ground. Concern surrounding the potential negative impacts on the land may yet be the lynchpin securing a strategic alliance between the Innu Nation and the Labrador Inuit Association for controlling the development process. The commononality of grievances pertaining to the environmental assessment process is the locus for such a strategic alliance. Despite this potentiality, the concern is ultimately felt in that the vastly under represented demands of one group are undoubtedly feeling the pressures from other interests seeking to begin in earnest development at Emish -- whether or not Innu Nation voices are heard, included, or have power. Alliances might be made in other arenas either nationally or internationally with environmental or other concerned groups (there are other groups, such as the Labrador Metis, which have land claims pending in the region).
All large scale natural resource extraction in Canada must have a federally approved environmental assessment before undertaking the actual development. Key questions include: How damaging will be the impact of development be on the environment? Will the process be safe for industry workers and surrounding residents? How should development of this resource be managed? These issues were also addressed in the June 25, 2001 Agreement-In-Principle between the Labrador Inuit and representatives of the Newfoundland and Labrador government. [see: Agreement-In-Principle]